The Coming Crisis in Cheese: An Open Letter To David Cameron

27/12/2012 16:47 GMT | Updated 26/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Dear Prime Minister,

I appreciate that you have a lot on your plate right now, what with trying to legalise gay marriage in the face of some of the silliest opposition in the history of British politics, and a somewhat less agreeable attempt to reintroduce the Star Chamber in anti-terror cases. Nice work sidestepping a triple dip recession, mind you, and let's hope you don't accidentally misplace Scotland at any point in the next few years. I suspect the Queen might be a bit short with you if you manage to give away an entire kingdom.

Yes, all right, I'm not a Tory voter. But we can surely agree on cheese. Cheese is good. And Britain, despite the grumblings of the French and the outrage of the Swiss, not to mention some plucky challenges from Italy, Austria, and Spain, has some of the best cheese in the world. We're world leaders in cheese. There's a really strong argument that cheddar is actually the greatest cheese on Earth (so long as you avoid that muck they call 'cheddar' in the United States, which we know over here as 'axel grease').

So I'm sure it troubles you as much as it does me that cheese is under a really serious threat, a genuinely scary, apocalyptic Nemesis of all things cheesy: drug-resistant MRSA in the UK's milk supply.

I didn't know about this until the other day, and I must say it rather scared the bejesus out of me. I looked at the cup of tea I was drinking and wondered whether I was about to be admitted to hospital. Fortunately, it's perfectly safe as long as the milk has been pasteurized, which of course it had because I shop at a supermarket rather than going out into the field and milking an actual cow. Fine and dandy, then? Well, no, because cheddar, along with most of the UK's other distinctive, beloved, delicious, exportable, and famous cheeses, is often made from unpasteurised milk. The other stuff lacks bite. It tastes tame.

I told my wife, and she shuddered. She's pregnant at the moment, so she's not allowed the good stuff. The prospect of a lifetime devoid of real cheese looms large in her mind. It does not please her. In fact, it apalls her, and she's right. "First fish, then honey, now this," she muttered, and I have to be honest and say that I hadn't thought of it that way, but she's absolutely right. I'm sure we should be worried that our food groups are being winnowed away in this fashion: plummeting fish stocks, the inexorable death of bees, and this latest Käsedämmerung, as our friends in Appenzell would have it - it's got to stop.

Can I be honest? I'm a bit more frightened about this than I'm perhaps making out. Beneath this jocular tone lurks a genuine horror that we may be creating a world we can't live in. Alongside that runs a suspicion that our present system is simply unable to cope with this sort of challenge. The rough pattern I expect this crisis to follow is: the cheese issue becomes a real concern; legislation and action are proposed; a number of powerful interest groups engage in a well-managed rubbishing exercise which strongly suggests that it's a storm in a teacup and that any action will ruin our farming sector and cause colossal price hikes in supermarkets; nothing happens until we find ourselves surviving on boiled feta. Because - as it seems - part of the problem is the conditions in which cattle are kept in response to the supermarket chains' demands for lower and lower prices so that they can continue to claim to the public that nothing's really that expensive and your local shop is just ripping you off. And I just don't know whether our political system or, alas, our political class have the spine to stand up to that sort of thing any more. I really don't.

And I know that it may seem a rather unlikely place to take a stand, but I'm begging you to do it. Food, after all, is fundamental. There's really nothing more basic. To be the prime minister who saved the milk supply has to be a noble thing. You could dicker with the economy for years and still get stuffed by a crisis in China or the US. You could intervene in ten foreign nations where a local monster is being monstrous and never see a real democracy emerge in your lifetime. You could haul us into a more powerful EU or yank us away from it and half the electorate will always think you were wrong. But surely, surely, saving cheese is a thing you can do and know it will never be held against you? And not just cheese, of course, because realistically in order to tackle the onrushing apocalypse of cheese you have to save milk. (For the children!) And maybe, just maybe, with a bit of momentum there you could do something about fish and honey, too, and before you know it you're an actual, honest-to-goodness, memorably wise, long-term leader.

Please, Mr Cameron. Save the cheese.

Yours Sincerely,

Nick Harkaway